LEFT The golden funerary mask of Tutankhamun, brought to light by Howard Carter and his team in 1922, quickly becoming perhaps the most famous of all archaeological finds.

Egyptology: obelisks and ambitions

The period between the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone in 1822 and the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 was a time of competing foreign interests among Egypt’s ruins and a growing sense of national identity tied to the ancient past. Toby Wilkinson tells Lucia Marchini about this age of fervent interest in Egypt.


Toby Wilkinson is an Egyptologist and the author of 12 books, which have been translated into 12 languages. He studied Egyptology at the University of Cambridge, graduating with First Class Honours and winning the university’s Thomas Mulvey Prize. After completing his doctorate at Christ’s College, Cambridge, he held research and teaching fellowships at the universities of Cambridge and Durham. He has excavated at the Egyptian sites of Buto and Memphis, and has lectured worldwide on ancient Egypt and Egyptology. Wilkinson’s books include The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, which won the Hessell-Tiltman Prize, Lives of the Ancient Egyptians, The Nile, and Writings from Ancient Egypt. His most recent is A World Beneath the Sands: adventurers and archaeologists in the golden age of Egyptology.

Your latest book, A World Beneath the Sands, explores Egyptology over a century, from 1822 to 1922. Why did you choose to focus on this period?

As an Egyptologist, I’ve been interested not only in the civilisation of ancient Egypt, but how it was uncovered, for a very long time. It possibly hasn’t escaped your notice that we’re heading for two very big anniversaries: 1822 was the decipherment of the hieroglyphics, which opened up the rediscovery of ancient Egypt and allowed the ancient Egyptians to be engaged with in their own voices; and then, 100 years later, we have the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, which really put ancient Egypt on the map in terms of global public consciousness and projected Egypt into the forefront of people’s imaginations, where it’s never left. The coincidence of these two anniversaries in 2022 seemed like a great opportunity to revisit that critical century between those two discoveries and breakthroughs, and try to tell the story, not just how the West rediscovered ancient Egypt, but how at the same time Egypt discovered itself. Because woven alongside the archaeology and the antiquarianism was a growing sense by the Egyptians of their own history and therefore of their own future. The story of Egyptology in the 19th century is also the story of national awakening in Egypt.

Quite understandably, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb coming just a few months after Egyptian independence in February 1922 made a lot of Egyptians think: ‘This is a great moment from our past; it shows that we were a great civilisation. This is the future we want for ourselves, not as a subject nation to the British and the Ottomans or any other foreign power, but as a proudly independent nation forging its own destiny.’

I found it intriguing how these stories are intertwined. We hear quite a lot about archaeology but we don’t very often hear about the other side of that, the impact that it has on the country and the people being excavated, being discovered.

The temple of the goddess Hathor at Dendera, visited by Jean-François Champollion, among others. Image: Juergen Ritterbach / Alamy Stock Photo

Are there any particular episodes from this century that you have the archaeology and the national awakening really coinciding?

It’s there throughout really. If you go back to the 1820s, the very beginning of archaeological investigation in Egypt, this also coincides with the rapid modernisation of Egypt under Muhammad Ali, the founder of the dynasty. Antiquities are used both as a kind of currency for the modernisation of Egypt, to buy support and favour from various Western powers, but also emerge as a kind of contentious point in Egypt’s relations with the outside world.

It’s there from the beginning, and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 crystallised this whole concept of Egypt’s past, and Egypt’s present, and the future of the country.

The two threads, I think, are woven very closely together – even up to today. The book doesn’t go beyond the 1920s, but of course the relevance of archaeology and/or heritage, and culture more generally, to national identity is very live as a topic. And Egypt’s ancient past still plays a prominent role in the current state of Egypt and its aspirations. It’s fascinating to see something that seems so modern – the ownership of antiquities, questions of cultural appropriation – goes back 200 years.

There is a lot of work going on in Egyptology between 1822 and 1922. What factors led to this strong interest?

The critical jumping-off point here is that ever since the days of ancient Rome, and arguably ever since the days of ancient Greece, ancient Egyptian monuments were collected and brought back to the cities of Europe as a symbol of how subsequent empires and powers wished to project their own magnificence. By claiming and displaying the artefacts of an ancient empire they were implicitly saying, ‘Look at us. We are the inheritors of the ancient Egyptians. We are now a great empire.’

That tendency has been a part of all subsequent powers – Britain and France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, then Prussia, then America. Every new rising power has wished to display its authority and its grandeur by obtaining objects from ancient empires. And so Egyptology is absolutely bound up in the question of imperialism and power politics throughout the 19th century.

There is something intrinsically very powerful about ancient Egyptian monuments. Take the obelisk, for example, from the days of ancient Rome, with obelisks being brought back to Rome to display the power of the emperors, all the way through to the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, which is not an ancient Egyptian obelisk but it’s very obviously an obelisk. It conveys a set of unwritten messages about a great civilisation, which have become hardwired into Western consciousness. Ancient Egypt has become a sort of shorthand for displaying your own power and wealth, and that’s really what drives Western interest in Egypt.

Alongside that, you have the fact that Egypt is mentioned in the Bible. Many of the early scholars of Egypt were interested in proving the historical veracity of the Bible and went to Egypt for that purpose. It isn’t until the late 19th century that you get what you might call scientific archaeology, interested in the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake rather than for religious or political purposes.

Who were some of the earlier key figures who paved the way for the study of Egyptology in the 19th century?

There are a couple of 18th-century pioneers who did absolutely set the groundwork before Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. Frederic Norden is a key figure. He was a Danish naval captain, and he wrote an account of Egypt in the second half of the 18th century, which was the most accurate account produced up to that point and tried to take a more scientific approach to describing the monuments. At the same time, Richard Pococke in England, although slightly less scientific, also left a very detailed description of Egypt.

It is those two, Pococke and Norden, who began to awaken a wider scholarly interest in Egypt. And it was that both of them were publishing in England (Norden ended up in England) that was the spur to Napoleon’s expeditions in 1798. Napoleon was very keen that the scientific discovery of Egypt should be a French enterprise and didn’t want to lose ground to the British.

left Jacques-Louis David, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries. Oil on canvas, 1812.
Jacques-Louis David, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries. Oil on canvas, 1812. Image: GL Archive/Alamy Stock Photo.

It was really Napoleon’s expedition that marked the birth of Egyptology. That was the first time that you had a large-scale expedition of scientists, architects, engineers, and mathematicians going to Egypt with the express purpose of studying and recording the monuments. The publication of that expedition in Description de l’Égypte was the first proper scientific study of Egypt’s ancient past.

Even from the word go, you could say this Franco-British rivalry was one of the driving forces behind Egyptology and remained a force throughout the 19th century.

above Frontispiece to the first volume of the Napoleonic Description de l’Égypte, published in 1809.
Frontispiece to the first volume of the Napoleonic Description de l’Égypte, published in 1809. Image: Alamy Stock Photo; New.

What was the relationship between Egypt and the foreign countries whose archaeologists were excavating in Egypt like?

I think Egypt had a somewhat ambivalent view of its antiquities, certainly in the early 19th century. For Muhammad Ali and the early rulers of his dynasty, antiquities were seen as a kind of bargaining chip or a currency that they could use to spearhead the modernisation of Egypt.

I guess it didn’t help that his dynasty was not originally from Egypt. He was of Albanian descent, so there perhaps wasn’t that same emotional connection with the ancient past of Egypt. For ordinary Egyptians, I think it must have been quite galling to see their heritage either bargained away, or dynamited, or stolen, when they had very little say in the matter.

That began to change during the latter part of the 19th century, particularly as more Egyptians were given opportunities on excavations and within the antiquities service. That sense that this was their patrimony, their heritage, became much, much more to the fore. It’s interesting that Auguste Mariette, the founder of the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1858 and the first director of the museum from 1863, although his own background was by no means spotless – he was involved in looting of antiquities himself – once he became the person in charge of the national museum, he very strongly advocated that this was for the Egyptians. It was not for foreigners. It was to present Egypt’s heritage to Egypt’s own people.

So the sentiment from the middle of the 19th century, and certainly the latter part of the century, started to swing much more towards Egyptian objects for the Egyptians, and they had a much more deeply expressed sense of their own heritage and their own culture, I think.

left Muhammad Ali, Pasha of Egypt, in an 1841 painting by David Wilkie.
Muhammad Ali, Pasha of Egypt, in an 1841 painting by David Wilkie. Image: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo.

What were people exploring? Were they targeting pharaonic tombs or temples, for example, or looking for anything they could?

Motivations differed. Somebody like John Gardner Wilkinson in the 1820s and ’30s was quite unusual for his time in that he was interested in the daily lives of the ancient Egyptians. He was looking for evidence, principally paintings in tombs, that would bring back to life the day-to-day activities of the ancient world. He copied very accurately many different tomb-paintings to illustrate crafts and agriculture and other activities in ancient Egypt. So that was his particular take on it.

Other contemporaries simply wanted big, impressive monuments, either for museums in their national capitals or indeed to amass their own collections of antiquities to sell at a profit.

And then you have some of the early German scholars, who were very interested in the language of ancient Egypt and in properly understanding how the ancient Egyptians wrote and thought. Jean-François Champollion’s decipherment of the Rosetta hieroglyphics was the key, but it was not until another 10 or 20 years later that people properly understood how the language worked, and that’s down to some of the early German scholars.

Then in the 1880s, along came Flinders Petrie, who was very interested – and had been from a boy – in smaller objects, in tiny little things, whether they are bits of pottery or little pieces of jewellery. They’re the sorts of tiny objects that might have been previously overlooked by excavators, but which he knew could tell their own stories and be part of that rounded picture of life in the ancient world.

Those different strands coming together are what have created the rich picture of ancient Egypt that we now have.

above The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, Cairo, whose first director was Auguste Mariette.
The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, Cairo, whose first director was Auguste Mariette. Image: eFesenko / Alamy Stock Photo.

We have a number of European museums sending people out to acquire antiquities. Was there political pressure back home for these expeditions?

There was huge political pressure. It was very, very overt. In the beginning of the 19th century, the British Foreign Office sent a memo to its diplomats in key parts of the world, essentially exhorting them to collect antiquities for the British Museum, to promote the glory of the British Empire. It was happening likewise in France.

And the Prussian expedition was incredibly well funded by the King of Prussia, who felt himself a little bit left out in this Anglo-French scramble for antiquities, and wanted Berlin to be every bit as impressive a capital as London or Paris.

What were the early methods used to excavate like? Have we lost archaeological context through this fervour to acquire?

Very much so. One of my favourite quotes that I included in the book is from an anonymous article in a French periodical written in 1821. Actually, it turns out to be written by none other than Champollion. This was after the famous Dendera Zodiac – which is the cover of the book – was hacked out of the ceiling of a shrine on the roof of Dendera temple, doing huge amounts of damage to the surrounding masonry and chipping off bits of the outside of the Zodiac itself. Champollion, in his anonymous letter – although he applauded the patriotism, as he put it, of the Frenchman who had snatched this antiquity and taken it back to Paris rather than London – said, ‘We cannot, however, refrain from expressing a certain regret that this magnificent temple has been deprived of one of its finest monuments… Should we, in France, follow the example of Lord Elgin? Certainly not.’

Even as early as 1821, there were people expressing misgivings about losing that archaeological context, about desecrating monuments by ripping antiquities out of them. He was a bit of a lone voice as early as that, but certainly those misgivings grew over the course of the 19th century. Now, quite rightly, we emphasise the importance of original context for all of these objects. They were designed not to be seen in a museum gallery but to be seen in a tomb, in a temple, in their original setting. You lose that, and you lose much of the meaning of the object itself.

RIGHT The Seated Scribe, a 5th Dynasty (2450-2350 BC) painted limestone sculpture with eyes inlaid with crystal excavated by Mariette in Saqqara in 1850 and now in the Louvre.
The Seated Scribe, a 5th Dynasty (2450-2350 BC) painted limestone sculpture with eyes inlaid with crystal excavated by Mariette in Saqqara in 1850 and now in the Louvre. Image: Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo.

Of course, these people could be entirely self-contradictory: on the one hand ripping monuments out themselves, and on the other castigating others for doing the same things. But in their more enlightened moments, shall we say, they did draw attention to the fact that this was not necessarily a good thing.

You have these two well-known figures, Jean-François Champollion and Howard Carter, bookending the period. Who are the unsung heroes of this time that you were particularly keen to celebrate in the book?

For me – and this is something I’d like to do more of in the future – there are a number of key women in the story, who really have been airbrushed out of history. Starting as early as the 1810s, there’s Sarah Belzoni, whose husband is very famous. She’s an important part of his expedition to Egypt, and it would be fascinating to publish more about her work.

There is Sophia Lane Poole, who went with her brother Edward Lane to Egypt in the early 19th century. She gained access to the harems of Cairo and wrote about the experience of Egyptian women as only another woman would have been able to, in a completely unique way for the time. It is a fascinating publication, but it is a sign of the times that her work was published under the name of her brother – it’s ‘by the sister of Edward Lane’ and it’s not until you actually dive into the book that you get her own name credited. It illustrates just how marginalised these female pioneers were in their own time.

Lucie Duff Gordon is an amazing character, and I focus quite a bit on her work. She was not so much interested in Egypt’s antiquities, but very concerned about the plight of Egypt’s ordinary people, and a great advocate and a champion for the Egyptian poor at the time of the Suez Canal being built in the 1860s.

Amelia Edwards is a little better known for founding the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882 and endowing the first professorship of Egyptology in Britain. But another unsung heroine of mine is Hilda Petrie. Flinders Petrie is called the father of Egyptian archaeology; well, he was assisted on all of his excavations by his wife Hilda, who drew many of the objects, was clearly heavily involved in the business of archaeology, and yet has never really achieved the due recognition that she deserves.

I think there is still quite a lot of mileage to explore those stories. They were people carrying out important research in their own right, but always published under the brother’s or the husband’s names. I think that’s an aspect of Western science in general that has had a lot more attention in recent years and deservedly so. I think it is time that Egyptology shone a bit of spotlight on its heroines as well as its heroes.

LEFT The golden funerary mask of Tutankhamun, brought to light by Howard Carter and his team in 1922, quickly becoming perhaps the most famous of all archaeological finds.
The golden funerary mask of Tutankhamun, brought to light by Howard Carter and his team in 1922, quickly becoming perhaps the most famous of all archaeological finds. Image: B O’Kane / Alamy Stock Photo.

Was there anyone you had hoped to include in the book, but couldn’t feature as fully as you had wanted to?

If there were one or two people that I would like to have given a bit more space to, it’s the early Egyptian pioneers of Egyptology. There aren’t many Egyptian names in the book – and the simple reason is that, again, rather like the Western women, the work they did was not recognised and not celebrated and not published. We know of some 19th-century Egyptians who were involved in various roles in the antiquities business, but they haven’t really left behind the records. Nor are there the biographical studies of their lives that would provide the source material. They deserve to have greater prominence as well.

One of the figures I include is Ahmed Kamal, who was one of the first Egyptian individuals to be employed by the Egyptian Antiquities Service in the 1880s, which was pretty much the preserve of foreigners for much of the 19th century. There was Rifa’a Rafi el-Tahtawi, a journalist and nationalist, who wrote one of the first books in Arabic on ancient Egypt, published in 1868. So there are figures, but as I say, the biographical source material that’s readily available for many of the Western characters just isn’t there yet.

Any book, I suppose, cannot do all of the individuals justice. What I’ve tried to do is draw out some of the better-known and some of the lesser-known characters, but also, as I say, to set alongside that story of the emergence of Egyptian national consciousness, because that’s such an important by-product of archaeology. In a sense it’s a positive note on which to end the story of essentially Western exploitation and plunder. It does bring into the world this strong sense by the Egyptians of their own potential as a culture and as a nation, which I think is one of the more positive outcomes of that century.

Toby Wilkinson’s A World Beneath the Sands: adventurers and archaeologists in the golden age of Egyptology is published in hardback by Picador (ISBN: 9781509858705, price £25).
A World Beneath the Sands is also out in paperback in September (ISBN 978-1509858736, price £12.99).